Gov. Gavin Newsom sided with the state legislature on Monday by signing a bill that requires California State University students who enter as freshmen in 2021-22 to take an ethnic studies course focused on one of four ethnic groups in order to graduate.
Assembly Bill 1460 requires all students enrolled on all 23 CSU campuses to take a 3-unit class in Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latina and Latino studies. The bill proposed by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber passed the Assembly a year ago and the Senate in June.
The new law will make California the first state to require ethnic studies as a university graduation requirement, according to the California Faculty Association.
Newsom’s decision rejected a competing plan passed by the CSU board of trustees to require students to study ethnic studies or social justice from a broad array of courses taught across the universities. That plan gave the system two additional years to implement the requirement.
“The university will begin work to implement the requirements of the new legislation,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the CSU system.
CSU, which was opposed to the legislation, estimated that it could cost the system about $16.5 million per year to implement the new requirement.
One of the key issues during the controversy was whether the university would control its own curriculum, or whether the state legislature could or should tell it what to teach. Both the CSU chancellor’s office and Academic Senate, representing CSU faculty, opposed the AB 1460, viewing it as legislative overreach.
Newsom, who as governor is an ex-officio member of the board of trustees of the university, and who also sat on the board for eight years while lieutenant governor, sided in this case with lawmakers and an array of advocates lobbying for the new course requirement described in the legislation.
The university system had instead proposed its own ethnic studies graduation requirement that would have included “social justice” courses and classes that explore the history and culture of a range of communities that had experienced oppression, such as Muslims, Jews or LGBTQ people.
The CSU proposal, however, was opposed by ethnic studies faculty members and the California Faculty Association, which is the faculty union. The association celebrated Newsom signing the legislation, which it sponsored.
“Gov. Newsom, by signing AB 1460, has demonstrated his understanding of the power of a true ethnic studies graduation requirement to change people’s lives and to change the racial trajectory this state and country are on,” said Charles Toombs, the association’s president. “Moreover, Gov. Newsom, unlike so many others, has listened to and really heard the voices and lens of ethnic studies faculty, students and the community.”
CSU, the largest university system in the nation, has been a leader in ethnic studies education. In 1969, the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State became the first college of its kind in the country. Cal State Los Angeles created the first Chicano studies program in 1968. Every campus in the CSU system, except the California Maritime Academy, offers at least one ethnic studies course.
The idea of requiring an ethnic studies course to graduate has been discussed over the years. But this latest push occurred amid nationwide anti-racism protests, calls for systemic change ignited by the police killing of George Floyd, and significant calls for inclusion and diversity across university campuses. This November voters will for the first time consider repealing the 1996 voter initiative banning the use of affirmative action in admissions and hiring at California’s public universities.
“What we are seeing in Washington and on American streets right now demonstrates the necessity of understanding the experiences and perspectives of these historically marginalized and oppressed groups who have nonetheless contributed to the building of our country,” Weber said.
A similar ethnic studies graduation requirement for high school students is gaining support in the legislature. Assembly Bill 331 would require students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2025 to take a one-semester ethnic studies course in high school. If it becomes law, California would be the first state to mandate such a high school requirement in the nation.